We must Bulldoze Scotland's love of the planning approach

We must Bulldoze Scotland's love of the planning approach

by Eben Wilson
article from Monday 21, September, 2020

WHAT POLICY APPROACH can support the advance of post-Brexit Scotland? 

While our nation is being forced to disappear up its own secessionist rear end through the Neverendum Tendency, that basic economic question does not lose its importance – Scots have to make a living somewhere and we need to do a lot of trade to support our population.  

Contrarily, my starting point is Asia. Vietnam, a fertile coastally populated medium-sized nation near to the size of the UK has a growth rate of 7.5 per cent.  Vietnam is changing fast with expanding exports of food and construction materials and docks and roads expanding and improving to cope.  

Vietnamese family structures and lifestyles are changing too. Vietnam has endless rows of street “shophouses”; houses with a shop on the ground floor displaying arrays of goods open to the street.  Above the shop lives the extended family. However, many younger family members now work in new factories, both the family cluster and communal shophouse living is slowly disappearing; the young prefer Western style independent living.  

What’s this got to do with the Scotland? Well, we have been through such changes too; rural Scots lived in turf-roofed hovels in extended groups in the early 1700’s. By 1900, around ten families shared each slum in Glasgow. Our cold damp weather forced a life indoors with alcohol for succour, but we also saw many small retail outlets built on our streets. Higher wages allowed villages like Alloa, Dunfermline and Dumfries – usually with their own industrial specialisms – to become towns, constructing new tenements and terraces for working people with nearby high streets. The stone streetscapes of Scotland were formed.  

Vietnam, and Asia generally, is collapsing the changes that we saw over two hundred years into only a few decades; their peoples are eager for it, changing and learning fast. Such is the luck of new developing economies building industrialisation into their way of life; new knowledge is sponged up. But Scotland has seen change stall; we see the walls and chimneys and streetscape of a coal-driven Victorian age around us, interrupted with boxy industrial distribution centres selling goods from – er – Asia, and no productive knowledge needed, which offends. Scots want economic improvement as much as the Vietnamese but feel cheated of it. Far too many blame the Tories or the English. They’re wrong.  

It’s the planning central state that has failed.  

Are we fated to a dismal de-industrialised future?  My answer is emphatically no if we recognise the role of dispersed knowledge and how that can be bolstered by fast social change in infrastructure and development. We need to recognise that to improve our economic lot faster; we have to change our surroundings faster in line with local understanding.  That takes two things; bulldozers and the freedom to bulldoze. If we want a 7.5 per cent growth rate (and we really do need that post-Covid) we need to start knocking things down.  

Which in turn brings us back to central planning, and the proclivity of the SNP in particular to assume that state power and control are the only way to advance development. Actually, it gets in the way, everywhere and at all times; because it does not have localised knowledge it falls into a strictly precautionary view against risk. Too often, central state and local authority corporatist interests take over how change might take place, with over-layers of precautionary planning, slowing it down drastically.  

Central planners view change through the lens of a university educated civil servants and a high-minded view of technology or the equality and a social justice identitarian agenda that defines how social needs “should” to be met.  The ideas and social mores of the “common people” are far too often met with a snort of disdain or a condescending disregard, so discarding the very asset change needs, local skills and knowledge about how a locality can be improved in line with local interests. 

Not all Scots are academically inclined, nor mathematically literate, or verbosely articulate; most of any nation is better with its hands than its brain. Production staffs matter as much as thinking people.  We need the diverse eco-system of factories, distribution trades, artisans and non-technical service skills to add value for the wages we spend on other retail and hospitality trades.  And we need to recognise that 99 per cent of all Scottish firms are small, large corporates are a rarity. There are only 36 trading in Scotland.  

To make Scotland’s eco-system fully fertile we have to find a way to release barriers to that 99 per cent being curious and creative; speculating to accumulate. We have to allow power over change to be localised radically. The key is to localise the ownership of change and pricing powers.  

This means allowing unused buildings to have a change of use or be knocked down. Give the right to develop to a highly localised area, down to street level, including the right to bulldoze. Property rights need to be given to united group interests, not the central state’s conflicting objectives.  We need to push budgets to communities, not our politicised councils.  

It also means constraining regulation should be localised as much as possible, made subject to sunset clauses, and allowing regulatory diversity. For example, we are promised an internet of things, but check out the layer cake of obstructions involved in putting an antenna up on a building in the UK or fastening a sensor to a street sign. A liberal rule-based licence system for players smaller than the statutory utilities (those wonderful people who bully you to have a useless and hugely costly “smart” electricity meters) could presume progress as advantageous.  

This also means allowing new main roads, link roads and streetscapes to be built. Many localities based on our long town streets would accept being re-arranged to have human-centred cores. That means bulldozing old areas to move traffic away from places we can re-build to live and thrive.   

To get that done requires devolving planning for change much more locally than the local council. The Council’s themselves know that their control of change is getting in the way, but they are hamstrung into a struggle with centrally mandated processes that our towns could do without.  

We must do everything to avoid holding up new productive industry in Scotland’s low-income industrial areas. That means allowing ambitious change that lets them develop their infrastructure and connectivity to markets. Imagine if we gave the A76 from Kilmarnock to Dumfries to a Road Trust providing a priced transport route to England.   

If owned by those local to the route, it would allow people to balance the intrusion of a bigger road and its traffic against Trust dividend revenues and it would help pay for a fast dual carriageway in support of a commercially valuable growth area that is presently moribund.  

Add in a near zero-planning area around Annan where there is plenty of space to build and Scotland could grow a new city near its border, synergistic with the development of North Ayrshire. You don’t need public money for this, you just need to free up those who want to gear their capital for gain. Personally, I don’t care how rich they get in the process; many other Scots will get wealthier too.  

Releasing productive creativity by harnessing the millions of able enterprising minds is the key to fast change we need in Scotland; but those minds have to be franchised by Holyrood divesting its power over property, prices and the discovery process that allows us to engineer change through localised knowledge. 

I am not enthused by plans to force rural broadband trench digging, or spend millions on exotic “green” technology. 

Infrastructure engineering does not offer plug-and-play certainty of commercial outcome. In particular, using state owned corporatist methods does not advance the rate of new commercialised end-to-end innovation; rather it introduces the treacle of loss-inducing incentives that favour coffee breaks and meetings over early starts, digging holes fast and pushing product out of the door. It is worth remembering that our shipbuilding, aerospace, brewing and other large-player industries all started with multiple small players. 

Corporates emerge through gradual agglomeration based on accounting considerations. That accounting, in turn, makes corporates slow adapters, letting other new players find niches that then grow. We need to evolve the latter, and no doubt one or two will become new corporates.  

There are those who demur, claiming that the internet, digital telephony, electronics and other new industries were all seeded by the state through the knowledge within its research agencies and universities. That’s an heroic view of technical change. Yes, Berners-Lee proposed and developed a hypertext protocol for common data sharing, but he no more invented “the internet” than Cassius the Roman wheeled chariot maker invented the Lamborghini. Innovation takes time, and in today’s world the integration of product and channel as a business system that repeatedly adds value is a multi-disciplinary, multi-layered effort by a network of nested sub-contracting relationships from design inspiration through to sales innovation.   

Scotland is blessed with two sets of institutions that do help us as sovereign and valuable knowledge assets; our universities and Edinburgh’s financial centre (linked to the City of London).  Both, however, are pretty much useless at putting together the commercial networks above. They have no idea as to what the next “cutting edge growth technology” might be as the rest of us. Rather, they feed them with new ideas and the finance to test them. 

Diversity and anarchy are our cultural traditions in engineering our luck; we are unlike the Continental Europeans in this; the SNP mind set of forcing collegiate thinking and hierarchical managerialism with its machine-like adherence to goals into our local areas and industries is a mistake. Post-Brexit, we need to align our stubborn creativity and localised diversity with our policy methods, to embrace a lot of rapid change, and quite a bit of mess through creative destruction – but directed by local people.  

Britain and Scotland changed dramatically when textile production was mechanised, when steam power advanced, when cholera and the pox were conquered, when the internal combustion engine became powerful, when sepsis and pathogenic bacteria we tamed, when radio communications advanced and, now, as digitisation evolves through telematic artificial “intelligence”.  

None of us have any idea if the next revolution will be in mechanical energy, biochemistry, electronic data or some other area of technical insight. It might only be in automated human services, plus nail bars, garden tending or personal training. What we do know is that it is not “the state” or “society” that can, in some obscure personified way, become collectively creative; we all know politicians and bureaucrats make many more bad than good calls as they have discretion without real knowledge. Pace Ms Sturgeon’s self-confidence that Scotland has done better, all state politicians everywhere are shooting from the hip with this pandemic. Allowing people the freedom to take back control at the level where that freedom over value-adding property and ideas can be harnessed should be the foundation of all policy. 

An honours graduate in economics from the University of St Andrews, Eben Wilson has had three careers; initially in journalism and broadcasting (including Milton Friedman’s TV series “Free to Choose”), economics (as an associate Scholar of the ASI) and now business (founding various companies).

Image of JCB 13 Ton Excavator courtesy of Ridgway Rentals.

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